Passing (1929), by Nella Larsen

For December 2018, we looked at novels by Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) writers working between 1900 and 1950. I read Passing by the American author Nella Larsen (1891-1964), who explored connections, and the lack of them, between black, mixed race and white communities in 1920s America.

Nella Larsen deserves to be much better known than she is. Her novels and short stories are easily available. She features on literature courses and attracts academic attention as an important writer of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ of the 1920s and a modernist. But sadly she has little or no popular reputation or widespread acclaim.

Larsen was born in Chicago in 1891 and died in 1964 in New York. She is generally thought – her family history is not clear – to be the daughter of a white Danish immigrant and a man of mixed white and Afro-Caribbean heritage. Throughout her life, and particularly in her early years, she moved between white and black communities, and felt she belonged in neither. When her parents parted, her mother married another Danish immigrant and Nella grew up in a white neighbourhood. She perhaps lived in Denmark for some years, one of few black people in the country at the time. She attended Fisk, a black university, but was expelled after a short time. She qualified as a nurse in New York and worked in hospitals there and in the South.

In 1919 Larsen married the African-American physicist, Elmer Imes, and lived with him in Harlem. She started writing around this time, looking at the overlapping societies she knew. Over time she published two short novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), and some short stories. She also worked as a librarian, being the first black woman to graduate from the New York Public Library training school.[i]

Larsen and Imes belonged to the Harlem elite, socialising with black leaders including W E B Du Bois. As noted above, this was the Harlem Renaissance, also known as the New Negro Movement, when black Americans were seeking their own identity (although their vision was based too closely, some thought, on white society). It was also, of course, a time when many could still remember slavery and the Civil War, and black people had few civil rights. As ever, Larsen seems unsettled. Then, as she was establishing herself, she was accused of plagiarising a story by British novelist Sheila Kaye-Smith, although this was not proven. She spent some time in Europe, travelling on a Guggenheim Fellowship, and when she returned to New York in the early 1930s, she and Imes divorced. Larsen continued writing, it’s thought, but published nothing more, and the reasons for her long silence remain unclear. She gradually dropped her literary connections and returned to nursing, dying forgotten 30 years later.

In the circumstances, Larsen’s reputation faded quickly, although she had received some good reviews. It’s interesting to note that her work made it at least as far as Cardiff and Nottingham in the UK:

  • in a review of Quicksand in the Nottingham Journal (18 May 1928), the protagonist, Helga Crane, was described as a ‘wonderfully fine and well-drawn character’, but ‘the story ends on gloomy and rather hopeless note’. Helga is of mixed race and, rejected by both black and white relatives, can never find her place
  • the Western Mail of 24 October 1929 reported of Passing that: ‘we have never read a novel in which the subject of crossing the colour line is handled with so much quiet power and with beauty, dignity, and sincerity. It reveals the soul of a people.’

With Larsen’s novel, Passing, well, the clue is in the title. This is all about passing off, misrepresentation, deception, hiding in plain sight (including from oneself). It is about two women, Irene and Clare, who grew up together. Mixed race Clare dropped out of sight as a teenager and has ‘passed’ for years, married to a white man who has no idea of his wife’s origins. Irene, who is black, has married well, into the professional community in Harlem, and is socially active and well-connected.

Clare is secretly dissatisfied, perhaps missing the warmth of her childhood world, and is drawn back to it through meeting Irene again, even though it means her husband might find out about her. It soon emerges that he is racist:

“I declare she’s getting’ darker and darker. … she’ll wake up one of these days and find she’s turned into a n*****.”

When Clare asks him what difference it would make if she was ‘one or two percent coloured’, he says:

“Oh no, Nig [his pet name for her] … I know you’re no n*****, so it’s all right. You can get as black as you please as far as I’m concerned, since I know you’re no n*****. I draw the line at that. No n*****s in my family.”

(Part 1, chapter 3)

Inevitably, relationships become tangled, as Clare takes more chances (she has a reckless streak, or is perhaps ruthless, as Irene thinks), and lead to a crisis.

But black passing as white is not the only deceit. Irene appears to be happy, with her successful husband, her two sons, her social position, her friends, her home with its two servants. Clare envies Irene her life – her security. But in reality Irene (the narrator throughout, in whose head the reader is trapped) is frightened. Under the surface, she is all tension. She is afraid that she is losing her husband and, with him, her perfect life; and also that Clare will be found out, leading to unspecified trouble. Irene deceives herself too: she ignores anything unpleasant, such as conditions for black people outside Harlem. After Brian has mentioned a newspaper report of a lynching to their sons, Irene scolds:

“I do wish, Brian, that you wouldn’t talk about lynching before Ted and Junior. It was really inexcusable for you to bring up a thing like that at dinner. There’ll be time enough for them to learn about such horrible things when they’re older.”

“You’re absolutely wrong! If, as you’re so determined, they’ve got to live in this damned country, they’d better find out what sort of thing they’re up against as soon as possible.”

“… What was the use of our trying to keep them from learning the word ‘n*****’ and its connotation? They found out, didn’t they? Because somebody called Junior a dirty n*****.”

“Just the same, you’re not to talk to them about the race problem. I won’t have it.”

(Part 3, chapter 4)

Brian has his secrets too. To the world, he is a successful doctor, a contented husband and father, but he has wanted for years to leave the USA. He stays out of duty, and because Irene pressures him to. It is perhaps easy to understand Brian’s frustrations, as he and Irene live in a bubble. Their world is comfortable, privileged, middle class and is in many ways a copy of the nearest white suburb down the road (although it also looks down on it). While there is much serious talk of social problems, and benefits are arranged for worthy causes etc, this community seems remote and unreal.

There is one other example of passing: sex. Larsen is credited with being one of the first writers to depict black people – black women – as sexual beings, and the sense of sex is strong. Irene is repressed, and there is little affection between her and cool Brian. They are the apparently perfect couple who yet sleep apart. Clare, in contrast, is passionate, vibrant. I can’t say that it struck me much as I read it, but some have suggested that ‘passing’ refers to covering homosexuality. Is Brian gay? Is Irene attracted to Clare, perhaps without even realising herself? Or are Brian and Clare involved? There is so much that is not said, that is secret, that is unacknowledged, and the shocking events of the final chapter are caused by things passing for what they are not, and may even introduce further levels of deception. Larsen asks questions, but doesn’t supply answers.


[i] Leaving aside her writing, Larsen seems also to have been exceptional as librarian and nurse. Hers was a time when professional careers – not simply jobs – for women generally, let alone for black women, were unusual. Her graduation as a librarian in the New York Public Library system was ground-breaking, and in nursing she rose quickly to management.

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